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March 13, another view

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The month of March has historical significance for the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines, revolving around March 14, celebrated here as National Heroes’ Day.Just south of the Grenadines, lies the neighbouring state of Grenada, Carriacou and Petit Martinique. Like us, the month of March also has historical and political significance for our Grenadian neighbours. By coincidence, the momentous date for Grenadians is March 13, one day before our national holiday.

It was on March 13, 1979 that history was made in the Caribbean, with the first-ever overthrow of an elected government, that led by Sir Eric Matthew Gairy, who had led his country into independence five years before. During those five years, Gairy, faced with the challenge of young progressive forces, had put reliance on force and repression to maintain his grip on power and had acquired the dubious reputation of a dictator in the Caribbean context.

By 1979, Grenada was in a state of virtual rebellion against Gairy’s rule and petitions were even sent to CARICOM leaders alleging the rape of democracy in Grenada, including allegations of rigged elections. Regular demonstrations and street protests were the order of the day, but these were brutally suppressed by strong-arm tactics. Finally, early in the morning of March 13, the New Jewel Movement (NJM), led by the charismatic lawyer Maurice Bishop, overthrew the Gairy regime in his absence from the island. The rest is now history.

Much has been said and written about the ill-fated Grenada Revolution. Much of it is, however, focused on what are considered the negative aspects of NJM rule, right up to the implosion of the Revolution in 1983, the arrest and execution of Bishop and several of his colleagues, leading up to the US invasion of October 1983. However, what is rarely given attention is the four-year rule of the NJM and its attempts in trying to build a “popular democracy” outside the framework of parliamentary democracy. No doubt the Bishop government made mistakes, one of them the refusal to call general elections after having consolidated power. They, and their supporters like myself, did not seem to appreciate the strong feelings of our people in the region where the ballot box is concerned, and despite clear exercises in democratic involvement of people in national programmes, the legitimacy of NJM rule was always questioned inside and outside Grenada.

But there were several interesting experiments which deserve examination. There was, for instance, the unprecedented literacy drive, spearheaded by the Centre for Popular Education (CPE). Incidentally, this was led by Mr Didacus Jules, who is today in charge of the OECS Secretariat. No Caribbean country had before this made such an effort to completely wipe out illiteracy.

Side by side with this effort was the national campaign of political education, including, for the first time, involving the people at mass level in understanding the national budget and being involved in discussions and input into it. The Caribbean had never witnessed such a process in its modern history. Laws were passed favouring women (maternity leave, equal pay), workers and farmers and mass organizations of these groups were actively encouraged and supported. There was also a tremendous upsurge in accessing tertiary education, the NJM government through its foreign policy getting scholarship opportunities, not only in Cuba, but in several other countries around the world.

These are but a few of the interesting and very positive developments in Grenada, but they have been out-shadowed by the negative happening and the 1983 collapse and bloodbath. Space does not permit a more thorough examination here, but it is important to study these experiments and to adopt a more balanced approach to the 1979/83 period in our sister isle.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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